Rural Populations


While “rural” is a concept that many people understand, there is no single accepted definition of what exactly rural is. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “’Rural’ encompasses all population, housing and territory not included within an urban area.” In this context, rural populations can be understood to be those living outside urbanized areas of 50,000 or more people and urban clusters of 2,500-50,000 people.

We can use the same definition to understand the challenges facing rural populations worldwide. Around the world, many people are moving from rural areas into urban areas, a process commonly known as rural-urban migration. The United Nations estimates that more people live in urban areas than rural since 2007, and the urban population is increasing faster than the rural population.

We often see narratives that portray rural living as idyllic and restful. However, rural populations often struggle with disaster response and recovery. FEMA uses a per capita indicator to create a baseline for financial assistance, and rural areas do not usually meet the minimum damage threshold because of their small population. Rural communities’ decentralized nature means fewer people are available to support response and recovery and are often a lower priority for infrastructure repair and restoration. Utility providers will typically prioritize an urban area with 50,000 people than a town of 500 or a village of 50.

Rural areas also have fewer resources in general to support the response to a disaster. While the Fire Department of New York has approximately 900 fire trucks and ambulances and a $2 billion budget, many rural fire departments operate with only one or two firetrucks and a single ambulance on a budget of whatever they can raise from the community.

The challenges facing rural communities during disasters became very apparent during 2017’s Starbuck Fire in Northern Oklahoma and Southern Kansas. When a downed powerline ignited a fire in dry prairie grass, the closest town was Slapout, Oklahoma (population: four). The local fire department, which includes residents from the surrounding area, responded with three trucks and eight firefighters. When they saw the size of the wind-driven fire, they immediately called for assistance – but none was available.

Rural communities often rely on mutual aid to fight large fires and to help each other during disasters. During the Starbuck Fire, every available resource was busy defending their towns, and none were available to help their neighbors. Although rural residents are often the first to pitch in and help during and after a disaster, as farmers and equipment operators did during the Starbuck Fire, they are often unequipped and unprepared for the dangers associated with disaster response.

Rural areas also take longer to recover after a disaster. The economy in many rural areas is dominated by only one or two economic drivers, with all other jobs being dependent on those primary employers. If a farming community loses its surrounding farms, it no longer requires feed and supply stores, schools, health care, retail or other supporting jobs. When a disaster wipes out a local economy, rural communities often do not have the tax base or financial reserves to recover.

Key Facts

  • Rural population numbers across the world are dropping. The percentage of the world’s population living in rural settings has dropped from 67% to 45% since 1960. Approximately 3.4 billion people globally live in rural areas as of 2019.
  • People living in rural areas have access to fewer disaster and emergency resources. According to the National Fire Protection Administration, 67% of firefighters and 82% of fire departments in the U.S. are volunteer or mostly volunteer. Emergency Medical Services (EMS) staff in rural areas are also significantly more likely to be volunteers.
  • Many disaster management staff in rural areas have multiple jobs. The Community Emergency Manager may also be the fire chief and owner of an essential business. As a result, rural communities may not have the same level of resources available to help manage a disaster as a city where there is a dedicated emergency management team.
  • Vulnerable people in rural locations are exponentially more at risk from disasters. Whether they are vulnerable because of circumstance (poverty, homelessness, addiction, etc.) or because of identities and other factors (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), they do not have access to the same resources as those available in urban areas. During and after a disaster, the limited resources available are often exceeded by the need, leaving people more vulnerable as a result.
  • Rural areas are often temporary homes to undocumented people who do not have access to traditional recovery resources. As people migrate from rural areas into urban areas, temporary workers fill vacated essential jobs, especially in agricultural regions and those that host meatpacking plants. Many of these temporary workers are undocumented and work for low wages and no health care benefits. When a disaster strikes, these populations often do not have health and home insurance, and they typically do not qualify for FEMA assistance.

How to Help

  • Support the development of Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs). FEMA’s CERT program trains community members to respond safely to disasters in their communities. These can be extremely valuable resources when outside help isn’t available.
  • Fund creative and innovative job programs in rural areas. A larger population base means more resources are available for prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. Stable long-term jobs in rural areas will keep people employed and provide a larger tax base for disaster-related initiatives.
  • Find ways to support transient and temporary populations. When people do not have access to traditional supports because of residence or citizenship limitations, it becomes harder for them to recover. Working with organizations that serve those communities to support disaster preparedness and recovery will help ensure equitable recovery for everyone.
  • Focus on the needs of rural populations who are most vulnerable. Reducing the vulnerability of people, particularly in rural areas, will help increase their resilience towards disasters. Funding programs that help make people less vulnerable, particularly in housing, economics and health, are key. Less vulnerable people are better able to prepare for, withstand and recover from disasters.

What Funders Are Doing

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s (CDP) Midwest Early Recovery Fund has an explicit focus on low-attention disasters, particularly those in rural areas.

  • Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri received a $91,506 grant to hire two disaster case managers to help connect people in rural Missouri affected by the tornado and flooding in 2019 with the necessary social, economic and other resources.
  • Habitat for Humanity Iowa received a $50,000 grant to support the hiring of a construction manager in the areas affected by the 2020 Derecho. This construction manager helped train and lead a crew of volunteers responsible for completing roofing projects and managing other construction projects related to recovery from the Derecho.

Other examples of funding for rural populations in disasters include:

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